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Wende Ballew’s rented Vista Cruiser barrels down I-45 across the arid expanse of south Texas, the air conditioner blowing hard on a 104-degree day in June.
Her Oldsmobile turns off onto U.S. 190 and heads toward the town of Huntsville. In the distance the red brick walls of the Texas State Penitentiary rise.
The year is 2009, and she is traveling across the flatness of the Texas landscape to a strange meeting — traveling into the stuff of Shakespeare, into the measured words of the Bible. She is moving straight into the question: What is evil? And what is our relation to it?
She passes through the prison gate, and the car crunches to a stop in a gravel parking lot.
Wende, short for Gwendelyn, 35, gets out of the car and walks into the prison, where she walks through security and gets patted down twice. She sits in an outdoor courtyard at a picnic table in the extreme heat. Across a razor wire fence she watches as men walk out to meet their visitors. One of them is Harold. They sit at the picnic table and talk. He says he spends a lot of time reading; his worst fear is he will die in prison. She tells him how angry she is.
He was so nice, Wende told her mother later.
I told you so, her mother said.
It was the first time Wende had laid eyes on her father since she was a toddler. It was also her first time inside a prison, but it wouldn't be her last. In fact, the confrontation with her father would reset the course of her life, and lead her to bring a message of hope to inmates in Georgia.
Growing up in a shadow
Wende grew up in a three-bedroom trailer surrounded by mountains outside the small North Georgia town of Chatsworth, population 4,000.
When she was just 2, a sheriff came to the door and arrested her father, Harold, for attempted rape.
There's no way he could do this! her mother, Rebecca, yelled at the sheriff.
I couldn't find someone nicer and sweeter to me, she would say later. He treated me like spun sugar.
When her mother arrived at the Gordon County Jail in Calhoun, Harold was standing in an open cell looking at her.
I did it, he said.
How could you! she screamed.
Harold Ballew was sentenced to two years in prison and Rebecca divorced him. Upon his release he moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he was arrested for indecent exposure and served three years. Then, in 1990, he stalked and raped a woman at knifepoint. He’s serving 40 years for the offense.
So Wende grew up in a household of women. In addition to her mother, there was her grandmother, aunt and cousin, Crystal.
Rebecca was a warm and caring mother, but she worked nights at Shaw Industries carpet mill. Sometimes she had two jobs. Childcare fell to Rebecca’s mother, Edna Conaway. Wende remembers her grandmother as stern. Children weren’t coddled.
At Maple Grove Baptist Church, Wende sat in the pew with her mother every Sunday and listened to the preacher grimly warn them about the fiery furnace that awaited bad people. Wende knew she wasn’t always good. Often, she would lie wake at night fearful of going to hell.
Wende’s mother frequently spoke matter-of-factly about her father’s monstrous actions. Before she knew what rape meant, Wende knew her father was a rapist. But the extended family never mentioned Harold’s name and her cousins thought he was dead.
Acquaintances in town were another thing. Chatsworth was a small town, and Harold Ballew's crimes were well known in certain circles. Sometimes, other children weren't allowed to play with Wende. Once when she and her mother were looking for a new house to rent, a potential landlord said, Which Ballew are you?
I married Harold. Rebecca replied.
Looking at her as though she had committed the crimes herself, the man began to back away and Rebecca quickly tried to explain.
In a flash of anger, Wende imagined running the man down with a car.
Just as she grew up in the shadow of the mountains, Wende grew up in the shadow of her father’s sins and it fueled a slow-burning anger inside her.
Nevertheless, Wende was a good kid who did well in school. Her closest companion was her cousin, Crystal. Crystal was a year and a half older, but the two were in the same grade at school and they couldn’t have been more different. Crystal was girlish and an open, trusting child. Wende was a tomboy who loved being outdoors. And schooled by Rebecca to beware of bad people in the world, Wende didn’t trust anyone.
The differences between the girls grew as they became teenagers. Wende obeyed her mother and teachers, and she wasn’t interested in dating. Crystal was boy-crazy and began using drugs. Before long she was addicted to prescription medications and began using meth.
Wende drove the family crazy in a different way. She challenged their fundamentalist religious beliefs. Their church taught that being born again was the route to salvation. Does that mean you believe Catholics and Jews are going to hell? she demanded of her mother.
Inside, however, Wende was worried. She had felt a sexual interest in women from an early age and knew her church considered it a sin. As the daughter of a sexual predator, she was terrified she had inherited some deviancy, something abominable.
When Wende was 17 she decided she wanted to get to know her father. With her mother’s blessing, Wende started writing occasional letters to him. She wanted an explanation for what he had done. He wrote back, providing no real answers but revealing that he’d witnessed violence between his parents and had been sexually abused as a child. When he asked her to apologize to Rebecca for his sexual behavior, Wende thought his request was inappropriate and their letters trailed off.
Meanwhile, Wende discovered a new passion in high school: theater. Despite her cool, restrained demeanor, she was drawn to the expressiveness of the kids in the drama club, and she loved working with her friends on productions, laughing and joking and rehearsing. It was a fun world and she was ready for a bigger stage to play on.
The wider world
College was a liberating time for Wende. She attended the University of West Georgia in Carrollton and majored in theater, where she became immersed in the creative backstage work of producing plays. She liked stage managing, pulling things together, running the show from the wings. She loved the world of ideas that percolated in the classrooms and the open environment that gave her the courage to come out as a lesbian.
Wende met Erin Gerber through an LGBT website in 2003. Three years later they were married in an unofficial ceremony in the college Alumni House. Later, they made their vows official in Iowa after that state recognized gay marriage.
During college, Wende had begun working as manager of the box office at the college theater and developed an interest in business. She completed an MBA. But she was dogged by the feeling that she was on the wrong path. She had left her fundamentalist upbringing, but still had the idea there was a God-given reason for her life — and she hadn’t found it yet
In June 2009, the couple was planning a trip to Houston for a friend’s wedding when Wende told Erin she wanted to visit her father in prison while they were there. Erin was shocked. Wende hated her father, but Erin agreed to the visit.
As they drove south toward Huntsville, Wende was edgy and angry. She wanted to tell her father how he had messed up her life. By then, Harold Ballew had been in prison in Texas for 19 years — and he had 21 more to serve. She hadn’t seen him since she was small and had no idea what he looked like. Her mother had thrown away most of his photographs.
As Wende stood waiting — not knowing what the confrontation was going to hold — she recognized Harold among the men walking down the sidewalk to the prison courtyard. He looked just like her uncles.
Seated at a shady picnic table, Wende threw all her stored-up anger at him. For 30 minutes, she hurled accusations in a low voice. He had done terrible things. He had hurt her mother. He never supported the family. Worst of all, he had brought shame upon them. He sat quietly and listened.
Yes, he said. It was all true and he was sorry.
She began to calm down. She wanted to know how he felt, to understand who he was. Showing emotion in prison was a sign of weakness, he said. You have to be stoic. But he talked to her about the books he was reading and they both talked about their lives.
Wende was taken aback by how well the visit went. She found herself liking the man. It was hard to grasp what he had done.
Erin sat outside in the hot car, starting it at intervals and driving aimlessly around in circles to cool off. After four hours, Wende came out. Her eyes were bluer than Erin had ever seen. She was quiet. Something had been laid to rest.
Back in Atlanta, however, Wende was no closer to finding direction in her life. If anything, she felt more unsettled than before.
It was at a special healing service at Metropolitan Community Church that events took an unexpected turn. Wende's future began to reveal itself to her. When minister Dolores Berry invited members of the congregation to join her at the front of the church for individual prayers, Wende found herself in line. Nervously, she eavesdropped on the woman ahead of her. "You have unresolved issues with your father," she heard the minister say to the woman. Wende was sure she would be told the same thing. But when Wende stood in front of her, Berry simply said: How long have you been feeling this call? It's not going away so maybe you should listen.
Wende was shaken.
A few days later, she took a walk through her neighborhood, and as she stood on a street corner, a word popped into her head: Prison.
Hell no, God, she practically yelled. What did she want to set foot in a prison for?
A few weeks passed before Wende reluctantly called the state Department of Corrections.
I want to volunteer in prison, she said.
What do you want to do? she was asked.
I don't know, she said. Well, I do have an interest in theater.
The women's prison
Wende drove her black Toyota down a two-lane highway through the North Georgia woods. As she rounded a curve, she saw a cluster of brick buildings surrounded by a nicely landscaped lawn. The only jarring notes were the tall razor wire fences and the guard towers rising above them. She walked through the door of Lee Arrendale State Prison, a maximum-security facility for women near Alto. Door after door clanked shut behind her as a chaplain ushered her into a classroom and left her alone with a group of inmates who looked at her expectantly.
“Are you afraid of us?” one of them asked.
“No,” Wende replied, but she wasn’t confident about what she was doing there either.
She started by introducing some traditional theater exercises designed to help actors loosen up and get beyond their “filters” — the barriers that hold people back from fully expressing the emotions of a character.
She quickly saw they were unnecessary. Inmates don’t have filters, she realized. It’s probably what got them in trouble in the first place, she thought.
Another time she introduced a script of a courtroom scene she thought the women might like. They didn’t. That’s when she hit upon improv. When she suggested it to the class, an inmate promptly stood up and began impersonating a public defender who didn’t know his client’s name, missed court appearances, was drunk in the courtroom and fell asleep during the trial. The other women joined in, suggesting additional details, laughing at the portrayal and brainstorming other ideas.
Wende threw away the script. These women needed to create their own performances.
In 2010, Wende founded Reforming Arts, a nonprofit group that brings in volunteers from local colleges and arts organizations to teach theater and humanities classes to inmates of the Lee Arrendale State Prison. Educational opportunities in prison reduce the number of people who return to prison after release, some research shows, and that is the goal of Reforming Arts — to reduce recidivism and help women improve their lives.
On fire with ideas, Wende returned to school and began pursuing a master’s degree in American Studies at Kennesaw State University. She studied other prison theater programs and began modeling her work on Theatre of the Oppressed, developed by director and activist Augusto Boal. In this method, the actors begin with a dramatic situation from everyday life and try to find solutions through interaction with the audience.
As Wende watched the women start to make breakthroughs in the program, she made one herself. She realized she was guilty of what she called “othering” the women. Rather than putting herself in their shoes, she was looking at them as “the other.” For months the women had been telling her about the abuse and addiction in their lives. They described the mindset of the addict.
I need to talk to Crystal, Wende thought with a jolt.
It had been months since they had spoken. Wende knew Crystal had gotten deeper into meth use, shooting up the drug with her husband, and Wende was angry about it.
She called one of Crystal’s teenage children.
“Where is your mother?” she asked.
“She’s in rehab. She didn’t want you to know.”
“That’s the best news I’ve heard!” she exclaimed.
Wende realized she’d had more compassion for strangers in prison than for her own family.
She paid her cousin a visit.
Crystal was getting help instead of punishment, unlike the women Wende knew who had been sent to prison for drug use. "The only difference," she told Crystal, "is that you were caught by DFACS and they were caught by police."
"One, two, three, four," Wende counted off the students and assigned them to groups.
They were going to do an exercise called Intelligent Clay.
“Use a traumatic experience in your life,” she said. For these prisoners, there was no shortage of material.
Leilani Tabb, who was serving time for child abuse, thought about the time her boyfriend kicked her out of a moving vehicle.
When it was her turn, she placed the members of her group in position. She seated two of them next to each other, as if in the front seat of a car. She took her hand and sculpted an expression of anger on the face of one, shaped the mouth into a grimace, raised the leg as if to kick someone. She shaped fear on the face of the other one.
After a few minutes, the group talked about the silent scene.
What was your biggest fear in the scene? What did you most want, they asked Leilani.
Wende then asked the actors to play the scene out.
“Take five steps to get what you want,” Wende said.
Based on the experience, Leilani began to develop a monologue about fear and longing:
“To be held by you. To be loved by you. I’ll do whatever it takes. Except that. Not that. Please don’t hit me. I’ll do better. I can do it. Just let me try. ... I’ll try harder. I will. I’ll make it all better. I can fix it. Dinner, beds, clothes dishes, children, even you. I can do it. I can.”
The goal of the dramatization was to help Leilani step back and look at the role she had played in the relationship. The hope was that she would begin to see things in a new light, including how she might have acted differently.
But no matter how much Leilani learned from the exercise, she would never regain custody of her children.
In 2013, Wende decided it was time to take Reforming Arts out on the road. She wanted to stage a public performance with some of the inmates who had been released from prison, including Leilani and Meagan Williams, who was serving time for possession of methamphetamine. Together they worked with Shelly Elman, a professor in the theater program at the University of West Georgia, to create a performance that explored the idea of freedom.
Shelly: “Tell me what your prison was.”
Leilani: “He was my prison.”
Shelly: “Tell me three sentences about that.”
Shelly: "Write it down on paper. Don't even worry about mistakes."
A bigger stage
Central Presbyterian Church is across the street from the state Capitol in the heart of downtown Atlanta. Thick carpeting covers the floor of the sanctuary, and the pews are made of dark, lustrous wood. Light gleams from stained glass windows high on the wall. It is far from the concrete blocks of prison walls, of clanging doors and shouted orders.
On a Saturday night, audience members trickle in. Erin hands out programs at the door.
Five women seated in the pews approach the dais, standing at attention:
“Inmate Williams. DOC number: 05489623!” Meagan shouts. “Inmate Tabb. DOC number: 1256789135!” Leilani yells. “Inmate Munroe. DOC number: 03264832!” says Shannon Munroe, and so on.
They launch into their monologues.
Meagan: “You can’t tell me about prison. You know why? Been there, done that. Don’t wanna do it again. Thanks but no thanks. ... There are two forms of prison. Well at least in my book.”
Shannon: “So me, I need that other type of prison. That cage that keeps me from doing dumb stuff.”
Behind bars, they had ached for freedom. They had longed to do something as simple as walk barefoot through the grass. Now that they’re out of Lee Arrendale, they’ve figured something out. They must find the strength to free themselves from their self-imposed prisons.
Leilani stands up. Her five children, now in the custody of others, weigh heavily on her mind as she recites her monologue:
“Those beautiful eyes
Those innocent eyes
Soft skin, Glowing, shining.
That laughter makes my heart rejoice
There it is again. Those beautiful eyes
Those innocent eyes.
Wende watches from the audience. From her experience with her father, she has learned that a person can’t be summed up by the worst thing they’ve ever done.
“He wasn’t just born to be a rapist,” she says. A lot of things happened to make him what he was.
No one stepped in to stop it when he was harmed as a boy. They simply looked the other way.
“Society refuses to look at the whole person — to look at violent offenders as victims.”
Wende has gone from hating her father to seeing him as human and learning to live with his contradictions. She won’t send him money to buy items from the prison commissary. She won’t try to get his sentence reduced. She knows her boundaries.
But she believes in the power of acceptance and respect, and she believes in the transforming power of the arts and humanities.
After the show Leilani and Meagan speak about Reforming Arts, praising the positive affect it’s had on their lives.
“It helps me deal with grief and loss,” says Leilani.
“It creates a lot of hope,” Meagan adds.
They both seem to have found a path out of their prisons.
So has Wende.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Freelance writer Stell Simonton heard about Wende Ballew and Reforming Arts at an InterPlay theater workshop. She was intrigued by the concept of theater as a tool of reform. Then she found out Wende's father was serving a long prison sentence, and she knew there was a deeper story there. Stell interviewed Wende multiple times over the course of several months, attended Reforming Arts board meetings and the performance at Central Presbyterian Church. She also interviewed former inmates who participated in the program. Repeated requests to enter Lee Arrendale State Prison so she could watch a class were denied, so Stell relied on eye-witness accounts to recreate the class scenes. On the recommendation of former inmates, Stell watched the Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black," which she was told closely resembled life in prison.
Suzanne Van Atten
Features Enterprise Editor
About the reporter
Stell Simonton, a freelance contributor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a former digital editor/producer at the AJC, where she worked for 19 years. She was online channel manager for metro news and managed the online travel section. Previously, she was a copy editor. A native of Marion Junction, Ala., she lives in Atlanta with her husband and daughters.
About the photographer
Hyosub Shin, a regular contributor to Personal Journeys, was born and raised in Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States about 10 years ago to study photography. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream's Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves' National League Division Series.
Next week: Fredi Dominguez was a child when he was brought to the U.S. He was 19 when authorities discovered his illegal status and shipped him back to a country foreign to him.